By FELICITY BARRINGER
October 14, 2010, 4:25 pm
A new study by researchers at Yale University suggests that Americans’ knowledge of climate science is limited and scattershot, with some understanding of basic issues like the contribution of fossil fuels to global warming and some singular misconceptions as well.
For instance, more than two-thirds of those surveyed believe that reducing toxic waste or banning aerosol spray cans will curb climate change. And 43 percent believe that “if we stopped punching holes in the ozone layer with rockets, it would reduce global warming,” the survey’s authors write.
Overall, just 1 in 10 of those surveyed said they were “very well informed” about climate change and 45 percent said they were not very worried or not at all worried about it.
If letter grades were given by the survey’s authors (based on absolute scores, not grading on the curve), 1 percent would have received an A, 7 percent a B, 15 percent a C, 25 percent a D and 52 percent an F.
Researchers said that the results “reflect the unorganized and sometimes contradictory fragments of information Americans have absorbed from the mass media and other sources.”
“Most people don’t need to know about climate change in their daily life, thus it is not surprising that they have devoted little effort to learning these details,” they write.
Some of the findings seemed mutually exclusive. For instance, the researchers note that an online survey conducted by Knowledge Networks this summer shows that, despite a blast of negative publicity about controversial e-mails to and from climate scientists at Britain’s University of East Anglia, large majorities of Americans trust scientists (72 percent) and scientific institutions (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 78 percent, National Science Foundation 74 percent) to provide accurate information on the subject.
Three-quarters say they want more information on the issue, but 45 percent say they are not very or not at all worried about it.
But climate skeptics have made some specific inroads. As the report’s authors found, 42 percent of those surveyed “incorrectly believe that since scientists can’t predict the weather more than a few days in advance, they can’t possibly predict the climate of the future.” More than a third (37 percent) think climate models are too unreliable to predict the climate of the future. And one-third believe, incorrectly, that most scientists in the 1970s were predicting an ice age.
The interlacing of knowledge and ignorance was a hallmark of the study. About 73 percent of Americans understand, correctly, that the current climate is not colder than ever before. But 55 percent believe, incorrectly, that the Earth’s climate is now hotter than it has ever been before, and about two-thirds believe, incorrectly, that the climate has always oscillated gradually between eras of warmth and eras of cold.
About 57 percent of Americans have both heard of the greenhouse effect and understand how it works. But one-third believe that because the climate “has changed naturally in the past, humans are not the cause of global warming today.”
About 45 percent understand that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat, but only a quarter know that methane does the same. And more than half think, incorrectly, that aerosol cans, volcanic eruptions or the space program contribute to climate change.
Slightly more than half understand that energy in fossil fuels comes from photosynthesis by plants over millions of years; just 29 percent understand that the sun was the ultimate source of energy in these fuels. Almost half say that fossil fuels are the fossilized remains of dinosaurs.
Three-quarters of those polled had heard nothing about coral bleaching or ocean acidification.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the spottiness of the participants’ knowledge, most said they needed a lot more, some more, or a little more information on the subject (25 percent, 26 percent and 25 percent, respectively.)
The authors — Anthony Leiserowitz and Nicholas Smith of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications and Jennifer R. Marlon of the Geography Department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison — conclude that widespread misconceptions “lead some people to doubt that climate change is happening or that human activities are a major contributor, to misunderstand the causes and therefore the solutions, and to be unaware of the risks.”
“Thus many Americans lack some of the knowledge needed for informed decision-making about this issue in a democratic society,” they write.
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Find the original Yale report here.